(Essay 1) blackbird and a pear tree by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum

A family story told in art, names, places, denied cultures,

black and sensual madonnas,  diversity of beliefs,

visionary and healing Santa Lucia of Sicily

blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas
blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas

A note on style: the text in this essay reflects the author’s preference for downcasing, a decision based on her dislike for capitalization, which, as a cultural historian, she views as a custom that perpetuates the hierarchy of nation states and dominant cultures in the modern era. In that regard, typically proper nouns are capitalized and words that are used as adjectives are written in lower case.


My eldest grandson Josh gifted our Birnbaum family with a September 2014 trip to Sicily in the African Mediterranean.

As a feminist cultural historian, I have spent the latter part of my life exploring Sicily—ancestrally part of the mother continent Africa embracing Asia and Europe (see all my books, especially my Future Has an Ancient Heart. Legacy of sharing, healing, and vision from the primordial African Mediterranean to occupy everywhere. iUniverse 2012. Rev. ed., 2013).

Most of these journeys have been with people with whom I am bonded… first of all Wally, love of my life (see revised 2013 edition, Future Has an Ancient Heart, subtitled – A love story, a vision, and a prophecy).  That bonding encircles my mother and father, Katie and Turiddu, Wally’s  mother and father, Dora and Harry,  our  ancestors and our kids, grandkids, and great grandkids, and my siblings Joie and Louis, as well as Wally’s  siblings, Norman and Elsa, and their significant others and kids. And our extended clans.

In 2014, my current spiral is our journey with four generations of Birnbaums crossing several clans . . . all of them, ultimately, African . . . then Asian . . . then European . . .  then American.


Riffs of the bass melody of my life and books began to emerge in the early 1970s when I was startled by a Palermo radio station playing the same melody.  .  . every day . . .  every night . . . over and over again.  Later I realized that the melody was African with Semitic overtones. . . then  I slowly came to  know the music as one of the forms of  my research on the African origins of everybody. . .  in my case followed by Semitic  and other migrants. . .whose descendants sing ~dance~ live  different riffs of the melody all over the world. 

In the 1960s, as the uprisings of submerged cultural and personal beliefs emerged in culture and politics, I began to think about my birth name, Lucia Teresa Chiavola, and my name after Wally and I wed, Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.  Lucia, patron saint of Sicily and the name of my paternal grandmothers passed down through the generations, may ultimately refer to the awe that primordial Africans felt when they first saw the light of the sun emerge from darkness.  In the common epoch, Lux and lucis were forms of the Roman word for light.  Subsequently light became a significant symbol in several world religions, yet the meaning of the name precedes religions.   Teresa, my Semitic middle name, is discussed in the section below on conversas.

In adapting names as clues in the study of my ancestry, my mother’s birth name, Catarina, keeps coming up.  Santa Catarina of Alessandria in Africa . . . Mount Saint Catherine in the Sinai in west Asia. . .  Cathar heretics of the late middle ages in the south of France whose early Judeo ~ Christian beliefs so threatened established Christianity the pope declared a domestic crusade to: “Kill them all!”  Most were murdered; some fled to Italy.  In my journey, I have encountered women who live the Cathar legacy of caring, sharing, and healing.

My mother Catarina translated her birth name to Kate and had her grandkids call her Momma Katie. Today, my sister Joie, whose middle name is Catherine, has a granddaughter who calls herself Cat.


Thinking in 2014 about a logo for new stationery, an image arose of a black bird –referring to my Sicilian maiden surname, ciavola, meaning black bird.  The Normans, who invaded Sicily in 1060 CE, added an “h” to the name, obscuring the original meaning of ciavola, black bird.

An artist and friend gave me a drawing that I hope will be  the cover of this book—a  black bird and a pear tree—a  V shaped flight of black birds, one of whom  (Lucia?) sits at the top of a  pear tree rooted in the earth  and  nourished by the light and warmth of the sun.  A mature pear hangs on a lower branch (Wally’s spirit?) while offspring pears fly away on their own journeys, yet keeping their biological-ancestral experience . . .

I am drawn to stories as a significant way of knowing.  .  . engaging the teller as well as listeners. Stories, told by different tellers,  listened to by different audiences, have unpredictable effects in the world,  as Einstein tells us,  because all humans, with different variables affecting their perceptions,  are changing in an  environment (geographic and multi- cultural) that is changing all the time.     

Analogously, I have wondered about the mysterious mutual dynamic that bonds teacher and students.   In classrooms, and particularly during on-site learning journeys together, it is often unclear who is teaching and who is learning . . . in moments when teaching and learning create a mutual dynamic insight. This happens dramatically  with  students who are colleagues with whom I am closely bonded,  comari . . .  likening our relationship to peasant women of Sicily and south Italy who shelled  peas together in courtyards, helped one another  bring babies into the light,  helped  when a husband was brought home with malaria. . . and told stories.  This, I think is true for  most human cultures . . . with different characteristics. . .—but people  caring, sharing, healing, envisioning is an experience that may give birth to the energy that can change people, the environment, and the world.  In any event, I am more interested in verbs rather than nouns, in images as well as words, and writing, in my case, as a way of knowing.

Thinking about an image for  the creative consciousness  that taps the preconscious as well as unconscious layers of knowing,  I see ways of  knowing  in music, art, names and other signs,  in stories, and in  human bonding  (all kinds of bonding) .  .  .  a spiral coming out of the earth and stepping   backward to gather the energy to spiral into the future.  In dark times, spirals can descend into dark places.  Descent, for visionaries, may be followed by reaching for the light . . . enabling us to spring forward.

In my case (particulars of stories vary with each person). I have become a feminist cultural historian who hopes she is a truthful story teller, whose style is allusive, or poetic, as well as logical and empirical.  Trained as a historian aligned with the social sciences, I hope to tap the ways of ancient historians and story tellers around the earth who have kept their poetic impulses and looked to everyday and celebratory rituals to express perennial beliefs.

Studying genetics, a scientific way of knowing, I have tracked my ancestry on my mother’s side to the region of Sicily around Palermo, whose 60,000 painting in the Addaura cave offers evidence of African origin of every human as well as confirmation that Africans following their curiosity (vision) reached all continents by that date (see Future Has an Ancient Heart, revised 2013 edition).

My father’s ancestry is marked by a 25,000 BCE African settlement in Sicily that became the region of Ragusa Ibla. The history of my paternal ancestry may be suggested in the sequence of the town’s names.   First, Ragusa Nera (black Ragusa); much later, when Sicily became a colony of classical Greece, the dominant class imposed the name Ragusa Hera (the subordinate wife of Zeus).   In our time,  inhabitants  of the town  separated it into upper and lower parts. . .the older lower level  insisting on calling itself Ragusa Ibla, whose suffix is the diminutive affectionate form of the name Cybele—image-memory of a  black woman who came out of the sea and created all beings (see the cover of my Future Has an Ancient Heart).

In our travels together, Wally and I were to find black madonnas, a significant marker on my journey, in many places . . . but significantly around Palermo and Ragusa Ibla, my family’s ancestral places in Sicily.

Wally and I wondered about our ancestral place of encounter . . .  when  my  Africa~Sicily~west Asia  spiral, dated to  60,000 BCE,  intertwined  with Wally’s spiral  Africa~west  Asia~Sicily,  dated to 25,000 BCE.   Sicily and west Asia were part of the land mass of Africa until 10,000 BCE when climate change separated parts of the mother continent Africa.  Water created the island of Sicily.  .  .and water separated the African land mass from that of west Asia.

Our mutual ancient mariners, we imagined together, could have been migrating Canaanite Semitic ancestors who met in Sicily at Palermo, my mother’s 60,000 BCE ancestral African place and/or at Ragusa Ibla, my father’s ancestral place where there was a 25,000 BCE African settlement. West Asian Canaanites founded Palermo in Sicily and Carthage in Africa in 800 BCE. A couple of millennia later, Wally and I, descendants of Semitic Canaanites, met in November, on the night after Thanksgiving at the end of world war 2 in the “heart of America,” Kansas City, Missouri. (see 20l3 edition of Future Has an Ancient Heart. A love story, a prophecy, and a vision).   

Wally’s and my mutual Semitic Canaanite inheritance was confirmed for  Palermo and Ragusa Ibla in  my study of history, theology, genetics (notably the work of Luca Cavalli-Sforza), exploring on-site (with caring and sharing of Italian feminists, notably Simona Mafai . . . similar to the caring and sharing of African and African American scholars, notably Molefi Asante . . . along with my realizing  that  Wally’s and our  sons’ and grandsons’ smiles were very like the smiles of  ancient Canaanites (see the statue of Canaanite youth in Mozia, Sicily) that, then and now, dissolve  pretensions of all cultural and political hegemonies—elites who exercise “power over” other  people.

For Ragusa Ibla, we also received help in the early 1970s from paternal Chiavola family relatives and from a Franciscan friar who took us to nearby Palazzola Acreide—a settlement in Sicily of Semites from Acre in west Asia—where we found contemporary kindred spirits.

Black madonnas, sometimes in disguise, have marked my life journey. Near Ragusa Ibla at Chiaramonte Gulfi we found a black madonna.  Twin of the black madonna of Clermont in France, her story in the province of Ragusa Ibla closely resembles the story of the black madonna of Milizia in the province of Palermo.  She is said to have come from the sea in a ship without a helmsman and was taken by oxen without a driver to a clear mountain where pilgrims come.

After participating in the black madonna’s easter mysteries in Trapani in l988, I lost track of this black Madonna.  Only recently did I learn that she originated in Custonaci in Palermo.  Although I had been to Erice (near Palermo and Trapani) several times, I never found her there.  My kids, scouting for me in 2014, found her at Erice . . . very black in a baroque cathedral whose many pagan symbols and many defiant human faces among the leaves of Greek corinthian columns give us a silent story of human resistance to arbitrary rule . . . from ancient times to the present.

Many of these stories are about icons of black women, called black madonnas and by a myriad of other names, all with charismatic power, may be found across the world.  Many are hidden, disguised, often white- washed by agents of the dominant culture.   Art and stories have captured the dynamic power of madonnas (black and white-washed) in the constantly moving backdrop of humans  migrating eons ago to the present rapid acceleration of change in all its forms . . . everywhere.

Migrations, like stories, suggest the simultaneity of the past, the present, the future.  This is not only Einstein’s view; I see it in my study of history.  Jews fleeing persecution after their temple was destroyed by the Romans in the first years of the common epoch came to Sicily. Simultaneously, Berbers migrated out of Africa to cities of the Roman empire where Romans and Christians called them “barbarians”.  At the same time, Africans migrated to Sicily from nearby Tunisia . . . where in recent months Arabs began the uprisings of the Arab Spring.   In the 7th century CE, Semitic Moors, or black Muslims, came from Africa to Sicily and stayed in people’s consciousness long after 1060 CE, when they were said to have been “conquered” by Christianizing Normans.

Before 1060 CE, Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together harmoniously, sharing the same Semitic origins and the same ultimate beliefs.   Judaism and Islam, in a theological view, are both Semitic faiths; Christianity, for contemporary theologians, is a faith with Semitic origins (see the books of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Elaine Pagels).

To be continued.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.

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chickie farella

Your timing on this is impeccable, Lucia! Your contribution to the planet and my personal expansion of the KNOWING and REMEMBERING whether I like it or not leaves me speechless!!!